The stakes are unusually high for a mid-season conference game. And not necessarily because UNLV and San Jose State are both in the Mountain West Conference’s western division crown race.
This means much more to each team’s bowl hopes, with the road becoming significantly harder for the loser and much more comfortable for the winner. UNLV is riding high after a week after ripping the Fremont Cannon from archrival Nevada for the first time in almost a decade, while San Jose State is peaking at just the right time, having won three straight and found their stride on offense.
Both teams are capable of putting up a lot of points, which is likely considering that neither defense has shown much fight this season.
UNLV has yet to have a game where they have rushed as a team for less than 100 yards this season. While the Rebels passing game has been above average this year, with quarterback Caleb Herring throwing only one interception to 13 touchdowns, the big gun of the offense is running back Tim Cornett, who really has been the backbone of the offense to this point.
Look at the numbers he has put up so far.
Important to note that Herring can’t be slept on either considering the Rebels throw the ball a little over half the time. But this team is pretty much going where Cornett carries them, and Herring or his backup, Nick Sherry, have yet to have a ton of success throwing the ball when the running game hasn’t been able to move it.
Does this mean the Spartans will be able to stop them? Probably not.
San Jose State have been sucking wind against the run all season long. Only two teams have failed to get to a 100 yards this year: FCS Sacramento State and winless Hawaii. San Jose State is among the worst in the in the nation, allowing an average of 449.3 yards per game in total offense to opponents, 96th out of 125 FBS teams; and 101st in rushing yards allowed at about 206 on average per game.)
UNLV is nothing to note on defense either. They are 73rd against the pass, allowing about 223 yards per game through the air, and the reason that number is so low is because of the poor competition the Rebels have beaten so far. Derek Carr abused them in Fresno in mid-October, throwing for 412 yards in a 38-14 rout.
San Jose State’s passing game is riding a big wave through conference play. David Fales has been brilliant in his last two games, and has been rewarded for it, and the offense has come up big in the middle of both games to erase deficits to Colorado State and Wyoming.
But most important for this matchup is the recent development of a running game for the Spartans. Since freshmen Jarred Lawson and Tim Crawley started getting regular carries, San Jose State has yet to rush for less than 160 yards in a game. This has been important to the passing explosion over that same time, with Fales throwing for 318, 431 and 482 yards in each of those games with 11 TDs against just three interceptions. Fales had six TDs against six interceptions in the previous four games combined, and the Spartans were 1-3 in that time frame.
Along with the emergence of two talented young backs, it’s also worth noting that UNLV’s front seven on defense have been awful against the run. They rank 117th out of 125 teams in the FBS against the run, allowing an average of 236.3 yards per game on the ground and a little over two TDs.
With Crawley and Lawson finding their stride in the ground game, Fales hitting his stride and weapons all over the place, UNLV’s defense could be in for a long game. On the flip side, San Jose State fans could be sick of hearing about Tim Cornett when this is done.
UNLV has also wilted when the teams got tough.
The five teams the Rebels have beaten are not looking at the postseason this year, with Hawaii and New Mexico each giving UNLV something to think about this season (they beat the Rainbow Warriors just 39-37, and the Lobos dropped 42 on them.) A Nevada program that has seen better days gave them a run for their money last week at home. The Rebels have won the games they needed to win despite being pushed in some of them, and been blown away by the others.
Their schedule to this point has also been devoid of “pretty good” teams, like the Wyomings and Colorado States of the world. Everyone has either been down on their luck this year (Hawaii, Central Michigan) or going full steam ahead toward a bowl game (Minnesota, Fresno State.)
This season’s success was important to Rebels’ coach Bobby Hauck, who probably doesn’t survive the offseason without a bowl game after three seasons with a total of six wins, and 10 losses in each. More than anything, writes Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ed Graney, it shows that Hauck’s vision for the future is starting to come to fruition.
It means a lot to UNLV to be bowl eligible, and being just one win away will give them incentive to go all out.
With Utah State next week and San Diego State looming, there likely aren’t many more wins left for the Rebels. Getting to six wins is good, but seven wins would likely assure them of a bowl berth, especially given the conference standings right now, with the possibility of as many as nine teams getting to bowl eligibility when this is all said and done for just six bowl tie-ins.
San Jose State, though, needs this one too. The Spartans need to get as far away from 6-6 as they can. Let’s face facts: San Jose State fans are not known to travel and are not often an attractive bowl pick. Many will remember 2008, when a 6-6 Spartans team got jobbed in the final hour by the Little Ceasars Pizza Bowl for Florida Atlantic.
The farther either of these teams can get from a .500 record, the better it is for their bowl hopes. Forget a Western division title, this one is important for a whole mess of other reasons.
A Spartans loss means they have to win to beat San Diego State the following week or Navy along with beating Nevada to get to bowl eligibility, and would be better served to beat all three. UNLV, with a loss, likely needs a win over Utah State or San Diego State down the stretch to secure a berth, all the while not overlooking Air Force.
This is going to be a shootout and the winner is one step closer to a bowl game. The other is in a tough spot with not many games left to get there. Both teams have a little leeway, and a loss here is far from the death knell for either one’s bowl hopes, but it makes the road a lot harder.
San Jose State (4-3, 3-1 MWC) at UNLV (5-3, 3-1)
Line: San Jose State by 3.5. O/U: 66.5, as of Tuesday
Last matchup: Nov. 22, 1997, San Jose State beat UNLV, 55-48 in OT
Broadcasts: Online through Mountain West website (Ray Crawford, Doug Chapman, Pete Fiutak & Shae Peppler); Radio, San Jose State on KLIV 1590 AM (kliv.com; Justin Allegre and Kevin Richardson); UNLV broadcast on 1100 AM (Russ Langer and Mike Pritchard.)